Hey Gringo!

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Drugs and Travel

 The Gringo Trail: A Darkly Comic Road-Trip Through South America (Paperback) by Mark Mann (Author) Whilst backpacking I once came across an Australian who’d been on the road for two years. I asked him “Where’s the best place you’ve been in all that time”. He named a small village in India. Intrigued, I asked him why that place was so special, expecting some deep spiritual experience but he looked me in the eye and said “I got stoned for a week and it cost me next to nothing”.

There is a part of the backpacking community whose urge to experience the world is dominated by a desire to take as many and as varied drugs as possible. This book reflects that side of backpacker culture in an unapologetic way and it starts from page one.

“Mark took his last seventy mushrooms on the plane from London to Quito. ……… I guess Ecuadorian customs aren’t really on the look-out for people bringing hallucinogenic drugs INTO South America”

The book is as much a drug diary as a travel diary. So why, you might ask have I just read this book for the third time – even though I think it’s poorly written and deeply unsatisfying? Well the simple fact is that it’s a trip down memory lane for me.
There will be a ‘spoiler’ towards the end of the review – well maybe we’ll call it a semi-spoiler. I’ll reveal what happens but not to whom it happens. I’ll warn you when it’s coming so you really can avoid it. However most people will read the book because someone tells them they should and most likely the recommender will already have given away the story. I knew the ending before I read the book – actually I knew the ending before I even knew there was a book.
What’s it all about?

“Mark attracts trouble like black velvet attracts cat fluff.”

The Gringo Trail was published in 1999 and over the years has gained a reputation as a bit of a backpacker-classic, being likened by the publisher’s PR department to such classics as Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’ and (stretching credulity somewhat) Jack Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’. If you travel in South America, sooner or later you’ll find a battered copy in the hands of a fellow traveller. It’s an account of the narrator’s trip around Andean South America in the 1990s. He and his travel companions bus their way around Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Columbia – meeting some strange locals, staying in some bad cheap hotels, hanging out with lots of other travellers, making some (occasionally) interesting points about ecology and politics but mostly taking lots of drugs – some of them the stuff they could have found back home and others of a much more exotic and psychedelic nature. They camp in some wild and glorious places, get into a few scrapes and generally do the sort of things backpackers do all over the world.

Does it work?

For me the book has one big problem and that’s a clear case of not being sure what it’s supposed to be. Mann flips back and forth between the wild and wacky adventures of the three travellers, some fairly heavy ‘book research’ pieces on the history of the region and some quite opinionated stuff on ecology and politics. I find it hard to imagine that the entirety of this mix will appeal to most people. Personally, I love the travellers’ tales and I skim over the heavy stuff. Others will love the more serious bits and find the tales hard to believe.

The book is told in a number of distinctly different ‘voices’ which don’t gel together in a convincing way. It’s as though Mann got back from his trip, wrote up the fun bits and the personal insights then sought out a publisher who told him to “pad it out with some facts and figures”. It doesn’t read as the sort of thing someone would really put together if they weren’t trying to reach a minimum word limit.

“I have read a lot of reviews of this book and many readers have suggested that the drug use/abuse is exaggerated and done for effect.”

For the book to be more effective I think it needed to have found a style and stuck to it, rather than finding three styles and flipping between them in a schizophrenic frenzy. To be a better travelogue, it needs a map because it’s not as if their route is in anyway logical. There is undoubtedly some good travel advice in there – e.g. don’t get set up by the police, never carry too much money and don’t take drugs across international borders – but I can’t help but think that there were a lot of things Mann could have told us that would have been more useful to a less drug-fixated traveller.

I have read a lot of reviews of this book and many readers have suggested that the drug use/abuse is exaggerated and done for effect. For me, knowing the people involved, that’s the aspect that rings most true and it’s the pseudo-intellectual stuff that jars.

Mark, Mark and Melissa

There are three key characters in this book.

Mark Mann – the author/narrator. He’s the ‘straight man’ of the piece, although in any normal setting he’d be considered fairly wild. He planned the trip, researched the itinerary and wrote up the story. He took the time to learn some Spanish and to try to understand the culture.
Typical comment – “The idea of simply taking someone else’s word for something, without checking it against every guidebook published since 1932, horrified me.”

Melissa – Mark Mann’s girlfriend. An ex-heroin addict who allegedly cured her own cancer through visualisation and positive thinking, she’s got plenty of common sense but none of the self-conscious intellectualism of the Marks. Teasing Melissa and talking down to her from their perch of superior intellect gives the two Marks a lot of amusement.

Typical comment – Melissa gets a lot of the best lines. For example when the boys are talking about the sea calling out to them she says ‘ Like the Sirens……in Jason and the Astronauts’.

Mark West – the wild one. Larger than life, arrogant, selfish, fiercely intelligent, charismatic – much more interested in new pharmacological experiences than the Nazca Lines or Machu Pichu. Mark attracts trouble like black velvet attracts cat fluff. He is thoroughly unreliable in every possible respect.

Typical comment – “There I was in the middle of Bogota, coked up to my eyeballs, in a hallway holding two machetes, while some drunk Colombians argued about whether or not to blow up a bar with a live hand-grenade. And I thought ‘yep, this is Colombia, just like I imagined it’.”

Mark, Mark and Me

I was at college in Oxford with the Marks and every few years I read it to remind myself of old friends. They were in the year above me and we lived in the same student housing for a couple of years in the mid 1980’s. I also knew some of the minor characters in the book who were people we lived with. I read the book every few years to remind me of people I cared about who didn’t always care for themselves as much as they should have.

I was an ex-grammar school girl whose teachers had done a good job of putting the fear of God into her on all things related to sex and drugs and probably a few related to rock and roll as well. I didn’t even start drinking until my third year. This was a time when drug-taking in Oxford was at a bit of a crisis – some may remember the death of Olivia Channon, daughter of a Conservative minister. I’m happy to say that whilst there was a lot of it about, it wasn’t that hard to avoid getting involved.

THE SPOILER – YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED

Without the death of one of his companions, this book wouldn’t really have a story to tell. What I admire about Mann’s writing is that he doesn’t glorify the lost person – he still writes honestly and in a way that anyone who knew them would recognise as genuine. He also avoids the temptation to make himself the hero of the piece – he accepts a role as the boring straight man and that honesty and integrity is the saving grace of this book for me.

Would I recommend the book?

To be honest, if it’s lying in your hotel in Quito and you’ve finished everything else, you might as well pick it up and have a read but try not to let it scare you too much. You can undoubtedly travel around the area without getting into all these scrapes. If you want a book to help you plan a trip to Andean South America, buy a proper guide book.

The Gringo Trail by Mark Mann
Published by Summersdale Travel
337pp

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Gringo Trail (The)
by Mark Mann

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Written by koshkha
koshkha

Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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